25 August 2005

Homeopathy and Intelligent Design

Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that is taken seriously by some, and mocked by many - especially those in the reality-based community. There is good reason for the mockery. Homeopathy is based on the medieval philosophy of "similia similibus curentur" (like cures like), and relies on "treatments" that involve administering a substance that causes symptoms similar to those of the disease it is intended to "treat". In order to avoid having the treatment cause more harm, the substance is normally diluted to such an enormous extent that it is present at levels that may be literally undetectable. This is believed to work because it is presumed that the process of dilution releases and concentrates the healing essence of the substance while removing the impure physical presence.

In short, then homeopathy is a classic example of a pseudoscientific enterprise lacking any basis in reality whatsoever. Despite this, it is a very popular form of "alternative medicine", and has many practitioners. There have also been serious scientific studies that have examined the effectiveness of various homeopathic remedies. In the latest issue of the medical journal The Lancet, a group of authors have published a detailed statistical comparison between 110 published, placebo-controlled studies of homeopathic remedies and an equal number of studies of conventional drug trials. Their analysis showed that the effects of the homeopathic remedies in the published trials are so slight that they are best explained as placebo effects. This comes as no surprise to the scientific community.

What I find interesting about this is the way that this contrasts with the Intelligent Design movement. In homeopathy, we see a "medical" treatment philosophy that runs counter to everything that we understand about the way that our bodies function. From a scientific perspective, homeopathy is utter garbage. However, it turns out to be testable garbage. Homeopathy makes predictive statements ("if you take this, it will make you better") that can be tested against what really happens. In this instance, they were tested and massively failed.

Intelligent Design lacks even that virtue. Intelligent Design makes no positive predictions of its own, and therefore cannot be directly tested against reality. The closest that ID comes to anything testable is when they claim that some given trait cannot be explained by evolution, but the jump from that to "ID is therefore right" is totally untestable - it would be like a homeopathic practitioner claiming that, "the cure proposed by conventional medicine does not work, therefore my cure must." Put in those terms it is clear that ID's "logic" is nonsensical. Yet for some reason, people seem to find it a perfectly acceptable argument in that context.
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